Oscar, Oscar!

Once there was a man named OSCAR! Aahhhh-Oscar!
He was disloyal to his friends! AAAAAHH-scar!

(I threw that in just for Jim, who will immediately start singing it in his head, then curse me for the rest of the day for planting it there. For my other readers….I’m terribly sorry.)

Oscar Hammerstein was not, to my knowledge, disloyal to his friends; in fact, by all accounts, he sounds like a peach of a guy. However, he has been dissed a fair amount over the years as something less than Richard Rodgers’ earlier partner, Lorenz Hart. I remember reading the liner notes for the Rodgers and Hart songbook recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, and the writer snarkily remarked that Rodgers never achieved the wit in his music with Hammerstein that he routinely achieved with Hart. Young and impressionable, I jumped on the bandwagon. After all, Ella wasn’t recording “Climb Every Mountain.”

So I was stunned when my hero, Stephen Sondheim, said that he owed a great deal to Hammerstein, his mentor. I heard this in an interview in the 80s, and remember doing a double take; Sondheim’s complexity and wordplay seemed the exact opposite of Hammerstein’s straightforward, even banal lyrics. But Sondheim elaborates on it in his superb book Finishing the Hat. According to him, much of Hammerstein’s genius was in lyrics that only sprang to life when animated by music through a deep understanding of how syllables needed to combine with melody. As one example, he uses the opening of Oklahoma!:

Oh, what a beautiful morning,
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a wonderful feeling
Everything’s going my way.

Not much on the page, huh? But if you’ve ever heard it, it soars.

It’s easy to dismiss Oklahoma! if you’ve only ever seen it done by high schools or in the dreadful film version with Shirley Jones and Gordon McRae. Both sing beautifully and have millions of teeth, but the movie is so prosaically and literally shot that your eyes glaze before 20 minutes are up. I remember when it premiered on TV in the 70s and an interstitial explanation (they used to do this a lot for TV) identified Oklahoma as the Sooner State. My brother-in-law at the time muttered, “I’d sooner be anyplace else but here.” That about sums it up.

But one Thanksgiving when Dennis and I took the kids to my parents, PBS showed a new stage version directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with Hugh Jackman showing off his impressive theater chops. It’s a magnificent production, riveting, thrilling, and beautifully cast. Nunn somehow manages to make the bizarre ending, which goes from a self-defense stabbing to a jaunty rendition of the title number in about 5 minutes, work. Most importantly, you see why the music shines after all these years. It’s not just the melodies. It’s Hammerstein’s perfect lyrics that imprint the tunes on your brain.

Sadly, there never has been a good film version of any Rodgers and Hammerstein work. The Sound of Music almost makes it, thanks to Robert Wise – the guy worked with Orson Welles and Jerome Robbins and clearly paid attention – and the fact that Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are appealing enough to overpower those smarmy children. (Plummer did rather famously remark that working with Andrews was like being hit over the head by a valentine, but I think there’s more love in that remark than first appears; after all, he does say “hit,” an indication of her considerable power onscreen as well as in the voice department. She’s downright cheeky in Mary Poppins, and somehow manages to not smirk at Dick Van Dyke’s accent, and she proves herself to be much more sexy and interesting than Bo Derek in Ten and other later movies with Blake Edwards.) Otherwise, the R & H screen catalog consists of nothing but the most unimaginative staging and shooting possible. It’s ironic in the worst way, because the duo broke ground and routinely tackled social issues that weren’t exactly musical theater fodder. Carousel weaves battered wife syndrome into a star-crossed love story. Flower Drum Song and South Pacific take on racism. Oklahoma! gives a sociopath an aria vaguely reminiscent of Rigoletto (“Lonely Room”).

I wasn’t looking for revelation the other day, when, overcome by jet lag and a redeye flight, I wanted my eyes to glaze over. I put in our copy of The King and I, mainly because I wanted to hear “The March of the Siamese Children,” a rather lovely, lilting, repetitive melody that soothes me when I’m jangled. I knew the pretty colors would provide additional salve to my weary optic nerves.

King is good, silly fun, chiefly provided by Yul Brynner’s over the top performance. The guy was ripped before anyone used the term, and he gets to show off his very swoony chest and abs a fair amount. In a nice meta reference, he actually says “Moses, Moses, Moses” at one point; for those of you who aren’t Jim, that’s what Ann Baxter says while playing Brynner’s wife in the camp extravaganza The Ten Commandments. I got exactly what I wanted, eye and ear candy that didn’t demand anything from me.

And then it happened. Too tired to sleep but not especially conscious, I was jolted to life by the set piece of the show, an elaborate production entitled “Small House of Uncle Thomas.” In a stroke of true genius, Rodgers and Hammerstein translated the didactic melodrama Uncle Tom’s Cabin into a remarkable show within a show, a Thai version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story that is perfect in every way. The characters shift from being 2D cutouts into avatars of the qualities that they represent: Tom’s nobility, Topsy’s prankishness, Eliza’s sacrificial love, Simon Legree’s cruelty. Precise feet, superbly controlled limbs, and the impossibly supple and intricate handwork that distinguishes southeast Asian dance transform the moral simplicity of Beecher Stowe’s tale into an exquisite world that is wholly believable even as it’s wholly fantastic. It’s a riveting 20 minutes, marred only by a few cutaways to the audience, watching with rapt faces. (I realize the filmmakers wanted to make sure we didn’t forget the illustrious audience, but….I had forgotten them. And wanted to.)

Hammerstein’s part in all of that music and dance driven action is to distill the story into a few key phrases that credibly emerge from the Thai chorus’s mouths. Any ad copy writer knows that succinct, on the verge of terse writing is the most difficult of all. Hammerstein tells the story with just a few well-chosen words, and they’re arguably every bit as, if not more, powerful than the original telling.

I’m deeply grateful that the work was captured on film, however uninspired the rest of the movie is. And how I hope that someone at some point can remake some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics as movies; heck, I’d like to tackle it. (I’m all about dreaming big.) Until then, don’t dis Oscar. He’s the quintessential lyricist who never ever calls attention to his own cleverness, but simply serves the music. A beautiful morning, indeed.

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